Big and Healthy

 As the media frequently points out, people are bigger now.  

What is often not pointed out is that we’re also taller and longer lived.  The Rotund’s post on the definition of health and  yesterday’s discussion on redefining illnesses reminded me of this 2006 New York Times article from Gina Kolata. 

Scientists used to say that the reason people are living so long these days is that medicine is keeping them alive, though debilitated. But studies like one Dr. Fogel directs, of Union Army veterans, have led many to rethink that notion. […]

The researchers focused on common diseases that are diagnosed in pretty much the same way now as they were in the last century. So they looked at ailments like arthritis, back pain and various kinds of heart disease that can be detected by listening to the heart.

The first surprise was just how sick people were, and for how long. […] They discovered that almost everyone of the Civil War generation was plagued by life-sapping illnesses, suffering for decades. And these were not some unusual subset of American men — 65 percent of the male population ages 18 to 25 signed up to serve in the Union Army. “They presumably thought they were fit enough to serve,” Dr. Fogel said.

An accompanying graphic compares statistics from surveys of Union Army veterans in the 1860s with recent NIH surveys.  Both surveyed white men aged 50-64. Some examples:

  1860s 1994
Difficulty walking 29% 10%
Joint problems 45% 20%
Heart murmur 28% 2%

 
I find this sort of research illuminates our views of the past and how it has influenced what is considered “normal”.  The “normal” is thin  – but how much of that was influenced by poor nutrition and childhood diseases that stunted growth and contributed to poor health?    Maybe if we can move beyond thinking that “thin” automatically means “healthy” or “fit” (and not fall into the trap of considering “fat” to automatically mean “healthy” or “fit”) then we can get to meanings that make sense.  :)

4 thoughts on “Big and Healthy

  1. Recently, I read that Otzi the iceman ( natural mummy of a Europeon man from about 3300 B.C.) who was around 40 when he died, had arthritis, a degenerative back disease and heart disease. I mentioned to a friend who had been telling me that high blood pressure/diabetes/high cholesterol/certain types of heart disease were no longer diseases of aging because we knew better now. Could avoid them through lifestyle changes and staying slim. She looked truly shocked when I told her Otzi had heart disease. Obviously a man from the Copper Age wasn’t eating high fructose corn syrup or fast food or being a couch potato. We’ve really had a number done on us. Most people I know are now convinced if they can the just find the perfect diet for themselves, exercise and never get fat, they’ll never gt sick or old.

  2. That is just so interesting.

    One thing it makes me wonder is if we’re not just heavier because we’re more healthy, but also because we’re less sick. That seems like the same thing, but I always take the fact that we’re bigger because we’re healthier to mean that we have improved nutrition and living conditions which allows us to grow taller and heavier. But since many illness lead to weight loss, being less ill could also be something that leads to people being heavier. If we have fewer chronic conditions that are going to cause people to weigh less than they would if they didn’t have those conditions, then people’s average weight will go up.

  3. But groups of the longest lived people were not very big–groups like the Okinawans. They had limited degenerative disease until the last years of their lives. I don’t think Paleo people are anything we need to emulate (like the example you give), but if you read about the “blue zones” (areas of long-lived people), it’s very interesting–importance of sense of community, physical exercise, lots of plants in the diet. I don’t know about size (since exercise doesn’t equal thin), but I don’t thin means not healthy unless there is a specific disease involved. Anyway, just some thoughts. Will be interesting to see what further research comes out of this.

  4. I have certainly seen strong evidence among the people whom I have known & known of, my relatives, people in the communities around us, & our ancestors, that being fat does not equal ill health or early death. I have also seen more than ample evidence to convince me that diseases do come with aging for a great many people, what diseases one gets & when, how old we live to be, etc., is largely determined by genetics & some dumb luck, &, that, no, there are no magic or ‘super’ foods, as many try to profit from convincing us, no way of eating or exercising which can guarantee longer life or better health. Long, large studies have shown no difference in mortality rates or occurrences of various illnesses between those who eat lowfat diets & those who eat what they wish. Many studies have shown no real difference in health between those who eat one or two servings of fruits & veggies daily, for instance, & those who eat 5 or more. We are definitely being sold a bill of goods.

    Yes, indeed, average weight will go up as people are generally healthier & more food secure & as they have fewer chronic illnesses. Also, there are strong indications that when we DO become ill, those of us who are heavier very often come through illness better, recovering more rapidly, &, in the case of terminal illnesses, surviving longer. There certainly seem to be many health benefits for people my age & older in being considerably heavier than the ‘ideal’, & it has been shown that, while dieting is harmful & dangerous to everyone, it is especially so to older people, & increases mortality risks.

    I honestly believe that, since it is normal & natural to gain weight with age, & since human beings seem to evolve to be larger with succeeding generations, that being fat is not unnatural or unhealthy & our bodies pretty much know what they are doing.

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